Metro, News

Landlord buys local real estate, draws critics

Preservation society, tenants complain of houses’ substandard conditions

By
senior staff writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
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Providence community members have been raising concerns in meetings and various local publications about Walter Bronhard, the owner of Walter L. Bronhard Real Estate, and his handling of his properties on the East Side. Bronhard owns approximately $50 million of property in the College Hill area, according to GoLocal Providence.

Recently, Bronhard came under criticism for his plan to demolish 21 Planet St., also known as the Welcome Arnold House. Because the building is located within one of the city’s local historical district, Bronhard had to apply to the Providence Historical District Commission seeking approval for demolition in May, said Jason Martin, preservation planner at the Providence Historic Commission. The commission has yet to make a decision on the demolition of the Welcome Arnold House, though discussion on the future of the house will continue Sept. 25.

Community members are upset over the potential demolition of the Welcome Arnold House due to the house’s historical significance, said Brent Runyon, president of the Providence Preservation Society. Along with being a historic house from the 18th century, the Welcome Arnold House was built by Welcome Arnold. Arnold was believed to take part in the Gaspee Affair, a ship-torching that preceded the Revolutionary War, Runyon said. Many consider Arnold a part of the founding history of both Rhode Island and the country as a whole, he said.

The Welcome Arnold House, though historic, is deteriorating in its current state due to a termite infestation, according to a February 2017 article from Providence Journal. The Providence Preservation Society put the house on its “2017 Most Endangered Property List,” citing work on the house that began in 2016, but stopped abruptly. “In the following months, broken windows and doors were left unrepaired, exposing the interior to the elements,” according to the preservation society’s website.

If the Providence Historical District Commission were to approve demolition — which is unlikely due to the high bar an owner must meet for approval — the Providence Preservation Society will try to take legal action, Runyon said.

“We believe that the building should be given a chance to continue its life; it holds a lot of historical significance,” Runyon said.

Additionally, the Providence Preservation Society has received multiple complaints in recent years from other property owners in the neighborhood about Bronhard’s conduct, Runyon said. The property owners have voiced concerns about exterior maintenance issues and property management of Bronhard’s houses on Benefit Street, he said. The society would receive complaints about sidewalks not being shoveled during winter time, trash being everywhere and overflowing mail boxes — all of which are a landlord’s responsibility under state law, Runyon added.

Concerns go beyond the historic and legal ­— tourism and the viability of local businesses could also be at stake, Runyon said. “Benefit Street is Providence’s signature historical tourist attraction, so that can have some impact on the tourism and the economy of Providence.”

Bronhard Real Estate has also drawn criticism from former tenants, most of whom are students in Providence.  Barry Nickerson, a student at Providence College, lived at 34 Benefit St. for a year. As an occupant of the house, Nickerson experienced many problems with the house, such as gas leaking from the stove, sudden increases in the water temperature which he says left scars on his body, a showerhead that was held together by duct tape, a hole in the ceiling from which animals urinated and a broken smoke alarm, he said. When he reached out to representatives from Bronhard Real Estate about these issues, Nickerson said they promised to fix the problems but never did. Though they deposited his monthly checks for rent, they were unresponsive to other letters he sent to the company detailing his concerns about 34 Benefit St.

Judy Schwarzkopf, another former tenant of Bronhard’s, said that she had to move out after five months  because of living conditions. Like Nickerson, Shwarzkopf experienced a gas leak in her apartment that was never fixed despite complaints to the real estate company.

Walter L. Bronhard Real Estate declined to comment or respond to the sources’ allegations despite multiple requests for comment from The Herald.